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Iraqi Jewish Treasures Displayed in D.C. Before Being Shipped Back to … Iraq

In the chaos of the 2003 war, remnants of a once-thriving Jewish past were saved (or stolen?) by America. Where do they belong?

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Left to right: Harold Rhode in the Mukhabarat basement; Torah scroll drying in a courtyard; 1918 letter from the British Military Governor’s Office in Baghdad to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of 500 sheep for Rosh Hashanah. (National Archives)
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On one level, this is a question of access. If these materials return to Iraq, it’s hard to imagine that Israeli scholars will be able to travel to Iraq to consult them. But this is a practical problem, to which American authorities are offering a technical solution. As part of the restoration process, NARA’s staff will be carefully digitizing every book and every document in the collection that cannot be found elsewhere. NARA’s Doris Hamburg promises that the rare materials will be made available for free on NARA’s website, and they will be word-searchable, with annotations by experts. Ironically, the massive digitization project that is intended to accompany the return of Jewish cultural treasures to Iraq will make the archive more widely and easily available to Jewish scholars from around the world than it would have been if NARA had kept the collection in Washington. Astoundingly, much of the Iraqi Jewish archive—once-secret trove hidden away by a police state, unknown and far from the public’s reach—is about to become one of the most easily accessible collections of Jewish materials in the world.

But such technical solutions do little to address the sense among many Israelis and American Jews that to comply with the 2003 agreement and return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq is just plain wrong. It is a curious aspect of modern life that archives, the ordinary bits of paper produced in the course of daily life, are often treasured as deeply as great works of art and religious objects. It was surely for their symbolic meaning more than any practical use that they were confiscated in the first place by Saddam’s secret police, which was determined to exercise its power over a terrorized population. It was also because of this powerful symbolism that Rhode, who helped discover the waterlogged books and papers in the Mukhabarat basement, went to such incredible lengths to salvage them and have them restored. As a religious Jew, Rhode has a view of the archive itself as being sacred because of the ritual sacredness of the Torah scrolls and other holy texts it contained.

Ten years after they were found, the symbolism of the collection is still strong. In Israel, Iraqi Jews and their descendants have built and maintain the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv. In Israel, heritage centers such as this one help sub-ethnic groups remember their past and continue their distinctive identities as their descendants become more and more Israeli. Sending the collection there, as Rhode and others have called for, would certainly be a meaningful act—symbolically restoring a past to a community that has lost so much.

1568 Venetian Bible

Tik (Torah case) and Glass Panel from Baghdad, 19th-20th centuries. In Jewish communities throughout the Middle East, the Torah scroll is generally housed in a rigid tik, or case made of wood or metal. (National Archives)

But the symbolism is no less meaningful for Saad Eskander, the head of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, who, since taking charge of the institution in the fall of 2003, has managed to get its damaged structure rebuilt and mobilize his staff to put its collections back in order. In 2010, when funding delays made it seem as though the Iraqi Jewish archive might be stuck in a kind of limbo, never to be fully restored, he met with U.S. officials to let them know how important the return of the collection was for the future of Iraq. Himself of Kurdish background, Eskander believes it essential for the Iraqi public to know that Jews are not a people foreign to Iraq. For Iraq to re-imagine itself as a place where people of different backgrounds can live together in peace, knowledge of the past is an essential tool.

In the face of loss, the desire to repair what is broken and to see justice done is a natural human desire. Jews feel it particularly strongly when it comes to the suffering of other Jews, even those who live far away, and especially when those Jews suffered merely on account of their Jewishness. It’s a solidarity borne of the knowledge that it could have happened to us. It’s out of that sense of solidarity that some Jews are going to continue to demand the “restitution” of these archives to Jewish hands. But it’s a different kind of solidarity, and a hope for a different kind of justice, that motivates those who seek its return to Iraq.

***

The archive will be on display in Washington, D.C., through January 2014.

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Iraqi Jewish Treasures Displayed in D.C. Before Being Shipped Back to … Iraq

In the chaos of the 2003 war, remnants of a once-thriving Jewish past were saved (or stolen?) by America. Where do they belong?

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